Children Receive Brain Stimulation in Attempt to Better Their Mathematical Skills

Rohan Mathew

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Brain stimulation is used for various reasons in the medical world. It’s been used to reduce tremors in those suffering with Parkinson’s disease, and known to help those suffering from sever depression, among many other things. One such thing that was previously suggested was that brain stimulation could enhance the mathematical learning in adults, and now Cambridge and Oxford researchers believe it may be possible to improve the performance of children struggling with mathematical learning too.

The study was published recently in Nature’s journal, Scientific Reports and involved twelve children in total, between the ages of eight and eleven, that had recognizable learning difficulties in mathematics. At the beginning of the study all the children were carefully screened and split into two groups of six each. Each child of one group wore a specially designed cap that was attached to a battery-operated device through which a painless current of low electricity passed. The current was applied across the left and right areas of the forehead, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortices. This particular area has been known to play a pivotal role in mathematical learning.

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Over the course of 5 weeks, researchers used stimulation in nine 20-minute sessions. While the other groups also wore the hat, they received no stimulation. The children were unable to tell whether they had received stimulation or not. As part of the study both groups of children were asked to take part in a numerical training game that was devised by the researchers. It integrated numerical learning and visuopatial components along with body movements that adapted according to the level of the child’s performance.

Using a mathematical test called MALT, the researchers measured each of the child’s performance both before and after the trial. What they discovered was that stimulation improved the learning of children throughout the numerical training game, compared to the others. These results support a previous study that was carried out on healthy adults and suggested tRNS on the same region of the brain improved the arithmetic earning skills compared to those in the control group.

“Learning difficulties are usually treated by behavioral interventions, but these have shown little efficacy, especially in brains with neural atypicalities,” says Professor Roi Cohen Kadosh of Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology and Machine Learning. “Our research suggests that children with learning difficulties might benefit from combining their learning with tRNS, which has been suggested to improve learning and alter brain functions in healthy adults.”

However, it’s still early days in terms of using tRNS as a standard method of improving mathematical learning in children with learning difficulties. More tests need to be carried out to ensure the same results are delivered. “Maths is something that many people find challenging, and worries a lot of people so the potential for neuroscience to help those difficulties to learn better is exciting but there are still a lot of ethical and scientific issues to explore,” says Professor Cohen Kadosh. Researchers also need to consider how it will impact children from different cultural or educational backgrounds.

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In a nutshell, this study demonstrates that children who received brain stimulation received better learning results than the non-stimulated group when it came to the numerical training tests. It also suggests that tRNS helped make these improvements. No child reported of any side effects whatsoever. These are a few of the good things we learned from the study that show promise for future applications.

However, what we should be aware of is that brain stimulation may not be suitable for children whose learning difficulties go beyond any standard tests carried out by scientists and that not every child will benefit from this type of therapy. It also might not be safe to use on every child due to underlying conditions. Brain stimulation should never be used as a way to enhance the performance of a healthy, developing child.